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Biological Waste System
Robert Edward Burton, San Francisco, 1966




Under the pseudonym Ruppert Spade, Martin Pawley wrote in 1970 the article “Trick Recyclist,” describing the experiments of Mr. Edward Burton for a Biological Waste Treatment System (BWTS). Between 1960 and 1966, Burton assembled several patents for a waste recycling system, with a view to adapting it for use undersea or in space. To develop his inventions, Burton was in touch with the Grumann Corporation, a leading aeronautics and spacecraft firm that consulted NASA, in the early 1960s. BTWS offset smart technologies coming from space shuttle engineering to home-made reprocessing systems. In his own domestic experiments, Burton, managed to nourish a duck, fifteen goldfish, an apple tree sapling, an apricot tree plantlet and a small rhododendron plant, explicitly from household effluent. With a number of conversions, oxidizing and permeation devices, Burton’s system became commercially available in the US in the early 1970s, promising to clear off effluents and grow tomatoes.

Burton’s patent “Method and Apparatus for Treating Waste Liquids” in 1966 related to the treatment of various liquid wastes, including raw and partially clarified sewage, municipal and commercial waste waters and similar liquid wastes, and more particularly to methods and means useful in carrying out such treatment by which separation and removal of colloidal solids as well as other beneficial effects can be obtained. Throughout this life, he developed 21 patents including ones for debarking logs, improving air quality, as well as many for wastewater treatment. Burton had a lifelong interest in turning waste materials into useful products, particularly ones that would address an environmental problem. Specifically his Microphor wastewater treatment system, which used redwood bark as the media to clean sewage and was patented in 1972, became a successful product and company, widely used on railroads and ships throughout the world.

Although Burton was an accomplished inventor and educator, trained at the University of California at Berkeley, one cannot avoid witnessing how his lifelong investment in material conversions recuperates an ancient mystery of material transitions in invocation of infinity, through the perpetual transformation of matter. In the resurgence of this position in postwar ecological design theories, there is an underlying psycho-social supposition for the migration of life via the phase change of material substances. In his own domestic experiments, we are less aware of what happened in due course to Burton’s flora and fauna after running his Biological Waste Treatments System for extensive periods of time. Closed systems that redirect all input into output are more than likely to exhibit unpredictable behaviors, such as the production of new substances that are not calculated to be dealt with by the internal organization of the system.


KEYWORDS: Liquid wasteSealed Waste Treatment System, Aerobic Processes


COLLOIDAL CONTAMINANTS: Colloidal solids result from the breakdown of virtually all living matter, including foods (e.g., proteins and starches), fabrics (natural or synthetic), building materials (woods, bricks, etc.),thus nearly all waste systems contain appreciable amounts of colloidal contaminants

MAN’S ORGANIC EXCRETIONS: Burton’s patents imagine an eco-social fantasy for a world of no loss, by outlining the history of reusing man’s organic excretions.

DENATIONALIZATION: The idea of homemade power, running a car or heating a house with non-polluting fuel that is generated in one’s own back yard was attractive to patrons of the environment disillusioned with oil spills, strip mining and smog. At the same time, similar concerns of privatization and hence denationalization expressed the extreme right. Alternative technology in some respects also abides to a long-standing American ideology of
the individualization and privatization of the domestic sphere.